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By Barry Rubin

The current debate over the roots of Islamist revolution, clashes in the Middle East, and conflicts between forces in that region and the West involves two critical issues of interpretation:

First, is there a threat to the West from groups whose members are Muslims or does the fault arise from Western policies and shortcomings which, if altered, would make any conflict disappear?

Second, if there is a threat does it stem from Islam as religion or Islamism as political philosophy?

It is important to understand that revolutionary Islamists do draw on mainstream, accepted, and sacred Muslim texts. Their argument has the potential to be just as “legitimate” in believers’ eyes as does the contrary view. At the same time, though, Islam as a religion is not the threat, even though it is the threat’s source and rationale.

The best image to use in order to understand this situation is neither to see the car’s driver (Islam) as inherently bad (as does the “Islam is the threat” camp) or inherently good but facing a would-be hijacker (the “Islam is a religion of peace” camp). A more accurate view is of a battle over the steering wheel by contenders who both have a claim to ownership. Both may be reckless drivers but the main danger is the Islamists, those who want to run us over and then drive the car and all its passengers over a cliff.

Islamism definitely draws on normative Islam and thus has wide appeal among Muslims. But, likewise, Islamism has many Muslim opponents who don’t accept it as their version of Islam.

There are many who do not want to accept the “Islam is the problem” argument because to do so is depressing (billions of people are against us!) or because it conflicts with their ideological assumptions (one cannot criticize any religion, or at least one that is not your own), or because it can be ridiculously labeled as “racist” (one cannot criticize anyone who isn’t wealthy or Western or “white.”)

These are fallacious arguments. But they don’t prove the “Islam is the problem” approach is correct, any more than do other fallacious arguments–that Islam is “really” a “religion of peace,” or that there is no threat, or that the conflict’s cause is Western sins—prove that revolutionary Islamism isn’t a danger.

Those who deny the nature of the threat often argue that when “properly interpreted” Muslim texts are not “really” radical, violent, and seeking political hegemony. However, one must quickly add that those “proper interpretations” are distinctly minority ones today, even if they predominated forty years ago.

The fact that Muslim texts do give backing to revolutionary Islamists does not mean that all or even most Muslims think that way. What it does reveal, though, is that unless they are going to hear counter-arguments, receive strong leadership by fellow Muslims, or enjoy Western support for fighting revolutionary Islamism they are more likely to think that way over time.

Most Muslims, even today, are not revolutionary Islamists. But in recent decades the current has flowed in that direction. I remember distinctly when a text like the Muhammad Abd al-Salaam Faraj’s book, The Neglected Obligation, calling for a revival of jihad, came out at the end of the 1970s, seemed so marginal. But the revolution in Iran took place in 1979. Then a small group of Egyptian jihadists assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat and launched a guerrilla war. Shortly thereafter, Faraj was captured and executed. Since then, Islamists have steadily gathered steam, despite an apparent decline in the late 1990s, and extended their power and support base.

The task of true moderate Muslims is to change the situation and make the moderate interpretations mainstream. They have a lot of work ahead of them and they are getting all too little support from the West.

Can they hope for success? Certainly. Christianity was an extremist religion in practice a thousand years ago and in some ways until a long time afterward. Of course, one can argue that its accepted texts are peace-oriented and that this religion’s founder—in contrast to Muhammad—opposed violence and a theocratic government. In making such an “obvious” (and factually accurate) argument, however, one must keep in mind that centuries ago such things were not considered obvious at all.

One can expect in the future—probably far in the future—Islam would still have the same founding texts yet will have developed to the point where moderate Islam dominates. That process could take in the Muslim majority world anywhere between 50 to 400 years or so. It is not likely to happen in our lifetimes and it is dangerous to expect otherwise.

Yet that doesn’t mean Islamism will triumph in the mean time. There are counter-identities and ideas among Muslims that block Islamism’s victory. They include the following factors:

–Individuality. People have different priorities and psychologies. They often tend (though less often than people in the West think) to want a stable life having the highest possible living standard and most benefits for their children. We see this does not always work (parents cheering their children becoming suicide bombers) but often does.

One must be careful, though, about basing government policy on this assumption, thinking, for example, more prosperity in the Gaza Strip will make Hamas more moderate or lead to its overthrow. Even aside from the appeals of ideology or religious doctrine, a minority of militants can often persuade or intimidate a much larger body of people to follow them.

–Ethnic-communal identity. Many Muslims belong to a sub-community which usually attracts their main loyalty. For example, there are Muslims who are Kurds, Berbers, or members of other groups including tribes. Sunni and Shia identities can be important also, accommodating Islamism (Hizballah) or communal nationalism (Amal) even among the same group of Lebanese Shias. Druze, Alevis (Turkey), and Alawites (Syria) are members of groups differing from normative Islam (I’d call them non-Muslims) and have their own communal loyalties.

–Nationalism. This has been the most important competitor of Islam in the Middle East. Aside from communal nationalism (previous paragraph) there are two other types: to a transnational nation, namely Arab nationalism or patriotism to a nation-state. These can co-exist with a strong Muslim identity but one less likely to be Islamist.

The existence of Arab nationalism, plus the power of the regimes that wield it, is the main force blocking Islamist victory among most Middle Eastern Muslims. That is why the preservation of the current relatively moderate Arab regimes—despite all of their faults—is extremely important for Western interests.

–Alternative forms of Muslim identity. This includes Sufism, following more moderate clerical interpretations, or even the radical Islamic Wahabi creed within Saudi Arabia which is nonetheless supports the existing highly pious but not revolutionary Islamist state. Wahabism abroad is often indistinguishable from revolutionary Islamism while within Saudi Arabia it generally fights against the al-Qaida revolutionary forces.

–Conservative, traditional Islam, that is, Islam as practiced prior to the modern rise of Islamism and among Muslims who don’t support revolutionary Islamism. This version of Islam has a quarrel with modernity. It sometimes supports terrorism, too.

But the important thing is that conservative, traditional Islam neither seeks thoroughgoing political revolution to impose its version of Islam on every aspect of the society nor advocates war on the West. For example, non-Islamist Islam may seek a society in which Islamic law is “a key source of legislation” along with Western-derived “secular” law, in contrast to the Islamist who wants Islamic law to be the “only source of legislation.”

Conservative, traditional Islam is often state-sponsored in order to ensure its support for the regime and status quo. Sometimes these clerics—the Palestinian Authority, Egyptian clerics on Iraq—take positions on “foreign policy” close to that of the Islamists. For example, they endorse terrorism against foreign non-Muslims but not at home. Nevertheless, they are less threatening to the domestic status quo and region overall.

While those Islamists who actively use violence are the most dangerous, those with revolutionary goals are equally Islamist and a threat even if they are not using violence in the present. This, of course, refers to the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood especially. It is important to understand that the fact that they aren’t actively involved in violent revolution because of moderation but because they fear government repression. Their exact counterparts are Hamas and Hizballah, which are so radical and violent in their practice because they aren’t afraid of their weak rivals, the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority respectively.

–Modernism. The basic acceptance of modern forms of belief and behavior often associated with the West. As Arab nationalism and nation-state patriotism is the main barrier to revolutionary Islamism in the Middle East, modernism plays that role among Muslims living in the West. The failure of Western societies to seek energetically an acculturation or assimilation along these lines is thus very dangerous and tends to put radical Islamists in control of the communities.

It is an interesting question to what extent “natural” factors, that is the day-to-day experience of living in a modern society with its good (freedom of thought, equality of women) and bad (drugs, alcohol, potential sex) features is going to transform Muslim communities there. Again, one has to get the balance right. One thing that is clear, however, is that European state practices are inhibiting this process rather than helping it.

Focusing on Islamism as the threat teaches the central importance of allying with genuinely moderate Muslims whose lives and lifestyles are threatened by the radicals. This does not just mean the small number actively trying to “reform” Islam but also the much larger number who just want to be left alone, enjoy freedom, and participate in the benefits of modernity.

This analysis, then, demonstrates why it is important to show how Islamism is rooted in genuine mainstream Islam and is not merely some hijacking of a “religion of peace.”

Equally, though, it is vital not to assume that because something can be found in authoritative Muslim texts this tells us that Islam is “inherently” radical. Only by comprehending this can we understand how radicalism may be fought effectively.

Both of these points are extraordinarily relevant. If one doesn’t understand the first, disaster will come from passivity, wishful thinking, and actually strengthening revolutionary forces by mistaking them as moderate ones.

Yet if one doesn’t understand the second—all the factors subverting radical Islamism despite its claim to be normative Islam—one won’t know how to proceed strategically and tactically. An additional problem is that one will be written off as extremist by the dominant Western society. It is all right to be brave despite name-calling and delegitimization efforts if one is right, but doesn’t make sense when the analysis itself is not so accurate or helpful.

In understanding this distinction, let’s briefly consider the Netherlands as a useful example. There are five parties in the Netherlands somewhere between mildly left of center and conservative. In the last election they received 55 percent of the seats in parliament. Geert Wilders’ party received 24 seats, about 30 percent of the center-right vote and about 16 percent of the overall vote. He has tended to focus on Islam as the problem.

The other four parties received about 40 percent of the total vote. All these parties have a serious critique of radical Islamism. The most liberal of them, Christian Union, put it in these words:

“Every Dutchman has the right to assembly, to religion and to express his opinion. But financial support of Dutch political, cultural and religious institutes from demonstrably non-free countries (such as Saudi-Arabia and Iran) is not permitted. It’s allowed to protect a free society from the importation of bondage.” It supported banning the burqa from public buildings, public transport, and schools.

Wilders is internationally famous, or notorious, but who has heard of Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the country’s largest party? Yet if anyone is going to change the country’s direction on immigration, Islamism, multi-culturalism, and a pro-Western, pro-Israel foreign policy it is going to be Rutte, not Wilders, since Wilders is considered, rightly or wrongly, too extreme to be in a government coalition.

One might take Wilders and Rutte as examples of the two sides of the debate analyzed above. Wilders is more consistent but lacks effectiveness in setting national policy. It can be argued that he widens the debate, making it possible for other parties to take a stronger stand and critiquing them when they go “soft.” But he also offers a good target for demonizing the anti-Islamists and splitting the vote of those who want change.

The anti-Islam argument can mobilize a small number of courageous defectors from Islam and critics among Muslims, the anti-Islamism argument, however, can ally with millions of Muslims and governments in Muslim-majority countries.

If the Western establishment view would be that Islamism is a big threat and problem, this debate would be less relevant. In recent years, however, the official view of Western governments has moved toward saying that only al-Qaida is the threat and that Islamists can be won over. This is an extremely dangerous position that brands both the “Islam is the threat” and “Islamism is the threat” analyses as “Islamophobic” and dismisses them without serious consideration.

This approach is highly dangerous for Western interests, democracy, and even for the future of millions of Muslims who face death or tyranny at the hands of revolutionary Islamism.

There are real “Islamophobes” in the sense of people who are bigoted. But the number is far tinier than Politically Correct forces claim. “Islamophobia” is a stick used to intimidate anti-Islamism. At any rate, those who are motivated by an irrational hatred of Islam are not the main threat to Western civilization and interests today. That role is played by far more powerful forces that ignore real problems and unintentionally assist revolutionary Islamists at home or abroad.

The “anti-Islam” argument is neither accurate nor strategically useful. The “Islam is a religion of peace and you can’t criticize even radical Islamists” argument is neither accurate nor furthers the survival of Western interests and democracy. What is needed is an “anti-Islamism” approach that also works with moderate Islam, the best alternative in principle yet regrettably weak, and a conservative, traditional non-Islamist Islam, the most practical alternative at this point in history.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).     

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